By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, in his first foreign trip since assuming office second time on August 3, 2016, visited India from September 15-18, 2016, leading a 125-member delegation. He held wide-ranging talks and sealed three significant deals with India. Remarkably, promising not to allow any anti-India activities on its soil, Dahal on September 17, 2016, said “we will not allow any activity that is against our neighbouring countries from our soil.” Dahal now seems to be a changed man and has placed the need for cordial relations with India as a priority. Earlier, during his previous outing as the Prime Minister of Nepal in 2008, Dahal chose to go to China first. Hardly within a week of taking the oath as the Prime Minister of Nepal, Dahal went to China in August 2008 and became the first elected premier to visit China first in the history of Nepal.
Earlier, Dahal’s predecessor, K.P. Sharma Oli in his maiden visit to India from February 19–24, 2016, signed seven agreements. But, prior to his India visit, linking his maiden foreign trip to India and ‘border blockade’, on January 26, 2016, Oli said “It would not be appropriate for me to visit India unless the situation returns to normal.” The ‘border blockade’ which began on September 24, 2015, and officially lifted on February 8, 2016, was imposed by the ethnic Madhesis inhabiting the southern plains of the country, who believe that the new constitution adopted on September 20, 2015, does not give them fair representation in parliament. The government of Nepal accused India of imposing an undeclared blockade. However, India denied the allegations, stating the supply shortages have been imposed by Madhesi protesters within Nepal, and that India has no role in it.
In fact, the political violence began on July 1, 2015, when cadres of United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), a four party alliance of Madhesi People’s Rights Forum Nepal (MPRF-N), Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), Sadbhavana Party (SP) and National Madhes Shadbhavana Party (NMSP), burnt the copies of the preliminary draft of the Constitution in Kathmandu, the Capital city, because it failed to incorporate their demands. Despite the protests, on September 16, 2015, the Constituent Assembly (CA) endorsed “Nepal’s Constitution” by an overwhelming 88.5 per cent of the 601-member CA, and by over 95 per cent of the Members present and voting. On September 20, 2015, in a historical step, Nepal adopted its first democratic constitution.
While the adoption of the new constitution was welcomed by most national and international groups and leaders, a large segment of the population, particularly the Madhesis and Tharus, residing in the Tarai region contested the new constitution. The Tarai region is an area located along Nepal’s southern border with India, and covers 23 per cent of Nepal’s total land area of 147,181 square kilometers. Approximately 30 to 40 per cent of the population falls within this region. Out of the country’s 75 Districts, 20 are located in the Tarai, including, from east to west, Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Rautahat, Bara, Parsa, Chitwan, Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Kapilvastu, Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kalaiya and Kanchanpur.
For its part, India tried to delay the promulgation of the constitution by sending Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar at the eleventh hour, but that was rebuffed by the Nepalese parties. Consequently, for the first time India took a stand against Nepal at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on November 5, 2015, during Nepal’s Universal Periodic Review suggesting that: “the Nepal government should consolidate the constitution building and democratization process by accommodating all sections of Nepal to enable broad-based ownership and participation. It should ensure effective functioning of Truth and Reconciliation Commission and full implementation of its recommendations, including prosecution of those responsible for violent insurgency.”
India also brought a statement regarding Nepal at the European Union (EU)-India joint statement on March 30, 2016, stating “The need for a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth.” This brought out a strongly worded rebuke from the Nepalese Foreign Ministry, that responded by stating: “EU-India Joint Statement not only hurts the sentiments of the people of Nepal but also defies the fundamental principle of non-interference in internal affairs of a country in breach of UN Charter and norms of international law. The government of Nepal calls on all to fully respect the sovereign and democratic rights of the people of Nepal and refrain from making uncalled for statements” Thus, the India-Nepal relations reached at their lowest point since the economic blockade of 1989 by Rajiv Gandhi’s government.
Earlier, in a historic visit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the first Indian Prime Minister visit Nepal in 17 years from November 25-27, 2014, and singed 16 agreements and MoUs. On touching down in Nepal, Modi said “I request all political stakeholders to draft the constitution by early next year as committed through consensus, which will reflect aspirations of all communities, including Madhesis, Pahadis and Maoists … failing to do so can cause difficulties to Nepal and your difficulty despite our expertise to help you in this field is a matter of sadness.”
In the meantime, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made week-long official visit to China from March 21-27, 2016, sealed 10 separate agreements and Memorandums of Understandings (MoUs) on using the northern neighbor’s sea port facility, building a regional international airport in Pokhara and exploring the possibilities of signing a bilateral free trade agreement and finding oil and gas reserves in Nepal among others. Rajan Bhattarai, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the ruling Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) on March 23, 2016, told “We have been an India-locked country. We are now developing a strong partner in China and opening up new transit routes.”
No doubt, there are various domestic issues in Nepal. The most important one is the amendment of constitution as promised in three-point agreement signed on August 2, 2016, by the ruling coalition Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN- Maoist Centre) and Nepali Congress (NC) with the UDMF to secure support from the Madhesi parties. As per the agreement, the government would implement the Madhesi Front’s demands that include acknowledging those killed during the Madhes agitation as martyrs and providing free treatment to the injured besides amending the constitution to redraw provincial boundary. Remarkably, the first two points had been fulfilled, but the issue of constitution amendment is still a thorny issue as to endorse the constitution amendment bill by a two-third majority in Parliament, at least 397 lawmakers have to vote in favour of it. But, the ruling coalition at present has at least 370 lawmakers on its side.
Another big question Nepal is facing today is to hold three elections – local, provincial and federal – by December 2017 as envisaged in the new constitution. In a proposed roadmap, the government plans to hold the local body elections by December 2016, state assembly elections by May 2017 and elections to the federal parliament by December 2017. In fact, holding these crucial elections within the stipulated time is the key to implementing the new constitution. But, Election Commission (EC) officials said that holding elections by the end of 2016 is fraught with huge challenges as the Commission would need at least 3-4 months for technical preparations to hold the polls. The last time local elections were held in Nepal was some 19 years ago in 1997. Since then, the local bodies – Village Development Committees (VDCs), municipalities, District Development Committees (DDCs), metropolitan cities – have been without the people’s representatives.
While New Delhi might have more say with the new government comprised of CPN-Maoist Centre and Nepali Congress, it has a long way to go to regain the popular adulation and positive vibes that was seen in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Nepal in 2014 and during India’s humanitarian response following the April 2015 earthquake. Moreover, amending the constitution to address Madhesi demands of redrawing boundaries of federal provinces is a domestic affair and it needs to be addressed internally. Nevertheless, the change of government is an opportunity to recalibrate this relationship and reflect on the special bond that exists between these equal sovereign nations.
*S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate at Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]